Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman says he could decide by the end of the month whether he'll run for governor. Minnesota's formal process for endorsing candidates begins at precinct caucuses on Feb. 2.
Speculation about a Coleman run has been casting a long shadow over the Republican contest. And opinions within the GOP about his potential candidacy appear deeply divided.
Coleman received a generally warm welcome from Senate District 15 Republicans at a fundraiser at the St. Cloud Country Club Saturday night. Most of Coleman's pre-dinner remarks were focused on criticism of the Obama administration and predictions of a rebound year for Republicans.
But during a question-and-answer session, Coleman was put on the defensive. A man first asked Coleman why he had sent him a Christmas card, and then bluntly told him to stay out of the governor's race. Coleman shot back.
"The beauty of democracy is that one person doesn't decide. The public decides," said Coleman. "Right now I'm not a candidate. I'm thinking about it. A lot of people, unlike you, but a lot of people have come to me and knocked on my door."
Coleman praised the GOP candidates already in the race, but he suggested he might be willing to join the field if enough people convince him that he'd have a better chance of winning.
"I listen. I hear your concern. I also listen to others. And ultimately, I'll pray about it, and I'll talk to my family about it, and then I'll figure out what to do," he said.
Coleman's angry critic was Doug Blaine of St. Cloud, who later explained why he confronted Coleman. Blaine said he only recently became active in Republican politics, and he wants to see someone new running for governor, not Coleman.
"I'm not going to stand for sending the same people continually into office, after they've proven that they are not capable of doing the job, or winning the election," said Blaine.
Coleman lost his U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Al Franken in a bitter contest that wasn't settled until after a statewide recount and lengthy court challenge. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998, when Jesse Ventura was elected.
Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, says Coleman has to be thinking hard about those previous defeats.
"I think the biggest consideration is whether he would win or not. Having lost of a couple of statewide races previously, this will probably be his last shot," said Hofrenning. "You don't usually get a chance to lose statewide more than three times. Most people only get a couple shots at that."
“He's got to make a decision ... because frankly, it hurts the rest of us as candidates.”GOP candidate Pat Anderson
There are already seven GOP candidates in the race. Some claim they're not worried about Coleman's potential candidacy. But one Republican candidate, former state auditor Pat Anderson, says it's having a big impact. Anderson says many potential contributors are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for Coleman to announce if he's in or out.
"He's got to make a decision one way or another. Because frankly, it hurts the rest of us as candidates," said Anderson. "People are waiting to throw their support, depending on what he's going to do. So, hopefully he will make that announcement within the next week."
One Republican holding back his support is Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who triggered the GOP scramble last spring when he announced he wouldn't seek a third term.
Pawlenty told reporters last week that he still isn't ready to endorse a candidate to replace him. But he offered a glowing assessment of Coleman.
"I think Norm Coleman is an enormously gifted public servant and policy leader. As I've said before, I think he'd made a great governor," said Pawlenty. "That's also true for many of the other people in the race, and I've served with many of them. But if Norm would get elected governor, I think he would do a great job for Minnesota."
Other Republicans are also weighing in. Former state GOP chairman Ron Eibensteiner wrote a harsh newspaper opinion piece last week urging Coleman not to run. Eibensteiner wrote that Coleman's likely path would be to run in a primary, which he claims would fracture the Republican Party.
But the current state GOP chairman, Tony Sutton, said he's not worried about a primary because he expects all candidates to seek and abide by the endorsement. Sutton said he likes the current crop of candidates, but he added that Coleman would generate a lot of interest.